U gets grant for civic engagement

Elena Rozwadowski

With recent reports on immigration issues and anti-war protests, civic life and social togetherness have become a topic of conversation.

“We have to talk to each other,” said state Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood. “If you’re out there talking to people, you figure out that we can overcome these issues.”

Now, with a $320,000 grant, the conversation can get started.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan gave the grant to the University’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship to support Minnesota Works Together, an initiative to improve the health of civic life and values in Minnesota.

The grant will jump-start the initiative, which hopes to host public forums and organize meetings with legislators, ultimately providing an avenue for open discussions about important issues like immigration, religion and education in Minnesota communities.

“It’s the beginning of a civic life movement,” said Harry Boyte, co-director of the center. “It’s an effort to change what has become a ‘me’ culture into a ‘we’ culture.”

Civic life

The concept of civic life is an interesting one because it embraces so many issues, Boyte said.

“It’s community with a public flavor,” he said.

Minnesota Works Together will involve students, community groups and legislators from all over the state and will work to solve issues that are important to the public, promoting a “healthy civic life,” Boyte said.

Boyte said this is the first time a state has banded together to work on these kinds of issues.

“We want to show Minnesota as a civic laboratory for the nation,” he said. “We have a huge amount of history to build on.”

Slawik, who is also a graduate student at the University, said she became interested in the initiative this semester when she took a class with Dennis Donovan, a research fellow who is involved with Minnesota Works Together.

She said she wanted to take the issue to the Legislature because so many elected officials are interested in improving their communities.

“I was struck by how challenging it is for legislators to be fully engaged in civic life because of party lines,” Slawik said. “All of us are elected because we’re interested in our community.”

She said the Legislature and community organizations need each other, and together can get things done.

“A civic life is about whether we’re going to be isolated as individuals or working together as a society,” she said.

Student work

Last week students from the Student Committee on Public Engagement attended a meeting at the Capitol with Boyte, Donovan and 19 legislators to talk openly about civic issues in Minnesota.

At the meeting legislators from both parties talked about civic traditions, obstacles they would have as legislators in promoting change and some ideas they might have to make those changes.

“It was very astounding to see how little conversation they have had with each other in an environment where they could be honest,” Donovan said.

The committee, which is student-run, is working with the Legislature and community groups to act as a “coach” for civic improvement.

“They’ll only get better at sharing their stories and teaching others how to do it,” Donovan said. “My hope is that they play a role in establishing a student leadership initiative statewide.”

Political science junior Blake Hogan said he thought the legislators were very receptive to a lot of the students’ ideas and that they had a very honest conversation about the questions posed by the group.

“You don’t want to bring up politics and religion at the dinner table,” Hogan said, “but this gave us a chance to do just that.”

Hogan said he hopes the committee will branch out and work with other students groups from all over the nation because students are so important in inspiring social and political change.

“I think that’s where it starts,” he said. “In coming from students, it gives a greater authenticity.”